Listen to youth about Connexions

16th July 2004 at 01:00
Many years ago one of my social worker colleagues had a poster above his desk that read: "Just because I'm paranoid doesn't mean they're not out to get me."

I am reminded of this when I read yet another newspaper or magazine article - sometimes in The TES - that has "Connexions" and "failure" in the same sentence. It happened again recently: this time the Association of Colleges survey, launched at their sixth-form conference. Of 500 members, 6 per cent are of the opinion that access to the Connexions service in their college has decreased.

Why? The AoC contends that it is because Connexions is focusing its resources on getting vulnerable young people into work and learning, and therefore paying less attention to the majority of college students who are not "at risk".

It was indeed confirmed by the National Audit Office in its March 2004 report that Connexions is on track to meet this November's government target to reduce youth unemployment.

The assumed corollary to this - that there are no resources left for less needy young people - is denied by many Connexions chief executives who have significantly increased resources for colleges and schools, and also have large numbers of young people getting face-to-face advice in their high street "one-stop" Connexions centres. We all agree with the general message of not enough resources, as did the NAO, but this could surely be said without an implication of failure. "Please can we have more of this good service?" might be an alternative message.

This week I was privileged to see a couple of young people with disabilities speaking at a conference to launch a detailed two-and-a-half-year evaluation, undertaken by the Foundation for People with Learning Disabilities, of Connexions Partnerships' work with young people with disabilities. One of its conclusions was that insufficient priority and resources are given to disabled young people - because Connexions is too focused on meeting the Government's target to reduce the "not in education employment and training" cohort, as above. However, at the same conference we heard that Connexions personal advisers were the only professionals who had taken time to listen to disabled young people, to see beyond their disability and advocate - or in some cases go into battle - with other agencies to ensure they had a fair chance of realising their aspirations.

Other research has confirmed young people's satisfaction with the service and its friendly and knowledgeable staff, although I have also heard a youth policy academic describe Connexions as "the team in purple and orange" - as if the service consists of 11 blokes with moderate ball skills and dodgy dress sense. Many young people are involved in Connexions, their influence playing a major part in shaping services.

Connexions: it's a complex business and, like most new kids on the block, not welcomed by all. But the best of Connexions demonstrates effective multi-disciplinary teamwork that provides good models for emerging children's trusts; a service that is doing its best, with finite resources, to ensure that all young people get a good start, and offering a universal service that people can take up when and where they need it. Connexions is staffed by people who listen to and respect young people.

You'd expect that the one organisation that might be pleased with Connexions - targets being met, public money being saved, positive Office for Standards in Education reports, a diverse provider market, young people being encouraged to articulate their choices and make progress towards their goals - would be the Government.

A few weeks ago I accompanied a group of young people from the North-east to meet their local MPs at the House of Commons. Alan Milburn, Dari Taylor and Joyce Quin expressed their confidence in Connexions and their pleasure at meeting young constituents who could clearly articulate how they had benefited from involvement with their local Connexions partnership. This being so, it is a mystery why our ministers do not recognise Connexions as one of their hidden jewels. Or, as Terry Wogan would say, "Is it me?"

Carolyn Caldwell is executive director of the National Association of Connexions Partnerships

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